The documentary Seaspiracy does more to spur controversy over the validity of statements and encourages finger pointing than fostering discussion for genuine change in the ways that marine resources are used and managed. Anjani Ganase discusses what might have been done to achieve better conversations
I don’t watch documentaries as they feel like work and are often too depressing. However, I watched Seaspiracy because there seemed to be a discrepancy between the reviews from the scientific community and those viewers not working in ocean research and conservation. Regular reviewers were left appalled by the greed and unregulated practices in the fishing industry, while the marine scientists were angered.
The documentary was heavily criticised by the scientific community for the false statistics and the misinformation, including the retracted statement that there will be no fish by the year 2048. I’m not going to delve into this here, as it is covered in detail by scientists. Please read them here: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/science-of-seaspiracy/
I’ll start by confirming that the oceans are indeed being rapidly depleted and degraded by the fisheries industry. More specifically, fishing and whaling on the high seas (two areas covered in the documentary) are especially difficult to have oversight of and have resulted in significant depletions over the years.
With respect to the commercial fishing industry, the documentary highlights the ills of a specific type of fishing, and the documentary does not differentiate between the various modes of fishing of which the fishing trawlers do the most damage.
Please note, that this is not the only form of fishing: there are a number of fishing strategies, some more sustainable and selective than others. The method shown in the documentary is industrial-scale hunting of fish wildlife with massive tow nets, freezers and even packaging facilities on the boat. This industrial style of fishing has drastically increased the catch rate and rapidly depleted fish populations.
This type of fishing which started in the 1950s, drove the collapse of Peruvian anchoveta populations in the 1970s, and the collapse of cod off of New England in the early 1990s and continues to this day (Pauly et al 2002). Apart from the sheer number of fish collected in an instant, it is destructive because it is non-selective, capturing anything its path, juvenile fish, marine turtles and marine mammals which are discarded as waste.
Bottom trawling scrapes the bottom of the ocean ripping up critical marine habitats. Today, 90 per cent of all the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited or over fished (FAO).
Whale entanglement in fishing gear is also serious and a growing issue. In Hawai’i, the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network works seasonally to patrol the area and rescue whales from entanglements which are almost always by fishing gear.
Many other organisations around the world work diligently to free entangled whales in their areas, however their efforts are a needle in a haystack given the vast distances that whales, turtles and dolphins travel. Research estimates that 300,000 whales and dolphins are lost every year to entanglements (International Whaling Commission - IWC).
But these ghost nets do not only impact marine mammals, they also entrap any and everything, including marine turtles and sea birds. I remember encountering a ghost net draped over large sections of coral reef some 300 km away from land or any visible human industry. I also saw the death and destruction that it caused.
When it comes to whaling, the International Whaling Commission has estimated 1576 catches (mostly consisting of minke whale) in 2018, from countries including Denmark, Norway, Canada, Iceland, Indonesia, Russia and Japan. Some of these are for aboriginal subsistence and others are for commercial and research-permitted use. While 1576 does not seem like much, remember that whales are long-lived species and a total of 56,809 catches were reported between 1986 and 2018 (likely an underestimation, if based on self-reporting).
The major issues I have with the documentary is that it tells a one-sided story. There are zero conversations with the many fisheries and marine scientists working in this field. A critical component of the work of fisheries scientists lies in understanding the biology and the ecological importance of the commercial fish species. They are working to design strategies for more sustainable fishing, as well as the development of fish farming, and working with communities dependent on the fisheries to educate and promote activities in marine protection and conservation.
Fisheries research is a hard field for marine science to work in as it is a field that receives very little attention or funding in government policy, and management, even in the Caribbean where we are mostly ocean ecosystems. Yet, the creators of Seaspiracy chose not to highlight any of the progress in this field in the last fifty or so years.
The fisheries research community could have certainly benefited from and been assisted in propelling the conservation of sustainable fisheries management strategies, solutions and conversation to larger scales even to the global forums. Instead, the direction the creators took which was to simply promote “eating no fish” which is surely a conversation ender not a starter.
Over 200 million livelihoods are connected to the fisheries sector and many of them occur in the developing countries (World Economic Forum). It is unfeasible and unfair to have this approach. It also undermines the work that has been going on between the scientific community, the fishing community and governments.
Instead of this alarmist approach, might this documentary not encourage people to think critically about the ecological and social impacts of their food/ fish selection?
Surely there is need for a responsible approach to guide better choices and action such as the issues of overfishing and unsustainable fishing methods with lawmakers.
We desperately need to be more involved in our food education and understanding the farming and the fishing practices. Where in the world do our food and fish come from, and what is the consumer’s involvement in safeguarding resources needed for the supplies?
We can all support marine research and conservation efforts by helping to volunteer on marine plastic monitoring, fish counts and even community surveys, especially on our coastal areas.
Lastly, we all need to push for better regulation to allow for marine spatial planning, management of fisheries quotas, equipment and catch sizes at the local level. Push for regional and even global regulation of commercial fishing on the high seas. We want our oceans and marine resources conserved and protected not just to preserve biodiversity but because so many lives and livelihoods depend on the marine resources.
With ocean reserves 15 times the acreage of our land masses, Tobago and Trinidad must pay attention to our marine areas to ensure that they are protected, managed and conserved as investments that would continue to yield food and benefit for generations to come.
Unlike oil and gas, these are living replenishable resources to be maintained and enhanced. Among the warnings of Seaspiracy, I urge citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to become more involved in the discussions surrounding our oceans as a major natural resource and something we often taken for granted. Have a conversation with the local fisherfolk, marine scientists, conservationists and even our politicians to drive the conversation of ocean awareness, and prioritise the sustainable use of our blue economy.
Pauly, D, Christensen, V, Guénette, S et al. Towards sustainability in world fisheries. Nature 418, 689–695 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01017